Each year our Pavilion Poetry students assist with the publishing of our new collections, dedicating their time to an individual poet. In this interview, Emma Ferguson talks with author Linda Anderson about her new collection, The Station Before (Pavilion Poetry, 2020).
Listen to Linda’s responses here, or continue below for the interview:
Your collection makes many references to other sources, as shown in your rather unique notes page which seems to highlight your academic background. Do you feel like your extensive work in academia has influenced your poetry?
The question about academia is an interesting one. Obviously I’ve worked in university for all my working life and I’ve been very pleased to do so, but it has often seemed as if poetry happened in a different space. Now partly that’s social and structural because in terms of universities it’s only in recent years that creative writing has been brought into the university and has been seen as an integral part of English departments, so that’s been influential and indeed that’s something that I’ve tried to make happen so far as I could and had influence there. For my own work it has seemed more recently that there’s no reason why academic writing should be happening in one space and poetry writing, creative writing happening in another. Both are creative in different ways and I’m drawn to kinds of academic writing that push the boundaries of language in one way or another. So I’ve been kind of quite consciously trying to bring those things together to not rule out kinds of thinking or different kinds of language within the poetry, and I think reading and writing are very closely aligned. You cannot write, I don’t believe, without reading carefully. There isn’t a difference between the reading process and the writing process so far as I’m concerned.
Your academic work around Elizabeth Bishop is clearly present in at least one poem in your collection, ‘Travelling with Elizabeth Bishop’- has this influenced any other poems? What is it that draws you to her life and work?
Elizabeth Bishop. Well obviously I’ve worked on Elizabeth Bishop for a very long time and have been very pleased to be able to go to her archive in Vassar. I’ve become kind of involved in her, as you do when you’ve been working on someone’s work for over a long period of time, and I wanted to go to the places where she had been. So that was Nova Scotia and Florida and then Brazil and the poem that’s in the book is based on a trip that I made to Brazil, where indeed I failed to find one of her houses there though I did find the other. Well why have I been drawn to Elizabeth Bishop? She’s a wonderful poet. She’s a poet who uses voice, she’s a poet who uses observation but uses it in such a way that there are undercurrents all the time, and that sense of being in one place but really something else going on under the surface is really quite important to me. Also the whole thing about seeing; seeing’s not a simple activity. We think of it as a simple activity but it’s not a simple activity. It’s always as is it were implicated and combined with not seeing as well, with invisibility, with the unseen. And partly for personal reasons because I’ve had periods in my life when I haven’t been able to see properly, I think that’s been very important to me; and to find someone who for instance wrote about her grandmother’s glass eye, that was very important to her. Bishop was going to call one of her collections ‘Grandmother’s Glass Eye’ and that became a figure for her of the ways in which there’s a kind of double-ness about seeing, the way that it’s doubled with not seeing something artificial as well.
Your collection seems to draw from the past, in a historical sense but also through memory- some poems express intimate and personal experiences, exploring different aspects of the self. Did you find that creating these poems was an emotional process, perhaps an isolating one? Or was it freeing to make these internal experiences external, through the medium of your poetry?
Well memory is such an important part of who we are. One experiences loss when one gets to the age I am. There have been a lot of losses and in a sense memory becomes a way of revivifying the things that you’ve lost. I think that’s very important – to carry things with you, inside you. Inevitably its partly an emotional process but writing poetry is something else as well. Writing poetry is also a playful experience, it’s a liberating experience; it frees you into a different place and one shouldn’t assume that the memories are absolutely accurate as no memory is. In fact the moment that you put it into a poem and make it work for you in a poem, it becomes something else as well.
The form of your poetry varies quite dramatically, mingling both prose and lyric passages. What inspired you to experiment with form in this way, what did you intend to convey through this method of writing?
I suppose we think about form as a way of creating pattern, and of course it is and that’s a very satisfying aspect for me of writing poetry. But I suppose I started using more kind of prose forms because I was also wanting to escape from certain rhythms and so on that were going on my head. It was just a way of freeing me up, escaping the boundaries of form as well in a sense. And also I wanted to get difference into the collection, I wanted to get a sense of different voices into the collection. I wanted to get away from a set way of doing things that I’d got into and so on, and so experimenting with form was a way of doing that for me.
Nature seems to be prevalent throughout this collection, do you feel like the external world is able to reflect or resemble the internal?
I love walking, I love being in the countryside, I love gardening, I love birdwatching. That aspect of my life couldn’t not come into my poems because it is precious to me, it’s a kind of meditative thing for me. Relation between external and internal worlds, well I think that’s an inevitability as it were. We are all individual subjects who see in particular ways, see different things; they mean different things to us because of layers of memory and experience, and so on and so forth. So one tries to get, consciously or unconsciously, those kinds of complexity I think into one’s descriptions of nature, one’s natural imagery, and hopefully for it not to be sentimental, and by sentimental I mean a kind of ease (one doesn’t want ease, one also wants complexity there as well). I’m obviously finding that question quite difficult to answer because I almost don’t think about it – it’s just so much a part of my experience that I feel it couldn’t not find its way into the poetry.
Linda Anderson is Professor of English and American Literature at Newcastle University where she was the founder of both the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts (2009) and the annual Newcastle Poetry Festival. Originally from Scotland, she was an editor of Writing Women for many years, has worked to establish innovative poetry archives at Newcastle University, including the Bloodaxe Archive and has published a poetry pamphlet, Greenhouse, with Mariscat Press, 2013.